Don’t cheer too loudly if Clegg gets a hammering in the Euro Elections

Labour should worry if Nick Clegg goes. The likelihood of a strong Lib Dem General Election performance would be greatly enhanced by a new - left-leaning - leader.

There was an interesting piece in yesterday’s Sunday Times (£) detailing an alleged Liberal Democrat plot to oust Nick Clegg should the party perform poorly in the European elections next month – a prospect which seems likely.

The paper reports that “Peers, MPs and party activists have delivered a stark message to Clegg that unless the party delivers respectable results, he will have to step aside”.

Clegg’s poor performance in recent debates with UKIP leader Nigel Farage (59 per cent of those who voted Lib Dem at the last election thought Farage was more convincing than Clegg), combined with generally hostility towards Clegg for propping up the coalition, mean the Lib Dems almost certainly face humiliation in the Euro elections next month. Clegg’s personal ratings are the lowest of the party leaders, on minus 51, and the percentage of voters planning to vote Lib Dem next month is just 9 per cent.

The big question is whether this will be enough to encourage disgruntled Lib Dems to pull the plug on Clegg’s leadership in the hope of avoiding a wipeout in next year’s General Election. No one knows at this point.

But let’s assume for a minute that it does. Frontrunners for the Lib Dem leadership should the party dismiss Clegg are: party president Tim Farron, business secretary Vince Cable, energy secretary Ed Davey and chief secretary to the treasury Danny Alexander.

The most likely to succeed Clegg, in my opinion, is Farron. Alexander isn’t leadership material, Davey doesn’t have a big enough profile and Vince Cable is increasingly compromised by his position in the coalition. Farron, on the other hand, has positioned himself as a critical voice on the left of the party (albeit a voice inside the coalition tent).

So let’s assume that Farron becomes leader of the Lib Dems before the end of the year; why should anyone care?

Well Labour should care quite a lot, because it would leave any “35 per cent strategy” – of relying on disenfranchised 2010 Lib Dems for a victory in 2015 –  in tatters.

As the Fabian Society found in a survey last year, ‘Ed’s converts’ – people who didn’t vote Labour in 2010 but currently back the party – are made up mostly of disgruntled left-wing Liberal Democrats. As the Guardian reported, “About 75 per cent of the converts – who have helped Miliband and Labour open an eight-point lead over the Tories in the poll – are former Lib Dems, 18 per cent are ex-Tory supporters, and 7 per cent are former supporters of other parties or people who did not vote in 2010.”

In sum, this is the difference between Labour polling in the high thirties and the low thirties.

The question, then, is whether the Lib Dems would win back some of the ‘Ed converts’ if they dropped Nick Clegg and elected a leader from the left-leaning wing of the party.

With the toxic Clegg out of the way, it doesn’t seem a huge leap of faith to suppose they would; and this could leave a not inconsiderable dent in Labour’s chances of an outright election victory in 2015. The ‘Ed Converts’ are not tribal Labour voters, and it would be foolhardy for Labour to assume that a number of them will not readily gravitate back to the Lib Dems under a more tolerable leader.

As Telegraph columnist Peter Oborne has noted, “Though no Conservative could say as much publicly, a reasonably strong Lib Dem General Election performance has therefore been strongly in the Tories’ interest.”

The likelihood of a strong Lib Dem General Election performance would be greatly enhanced by a new – left-leaning – leader. As the Labour lead poll lead narrows, it is increasingly important for the party that toxic Clegg hangs on until after the 2015 General Election.

In other words, don’t cheer too loudly if Clegg gets a hammering in next month’s European elections.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.